FOR many football fans, heated debates about their club’s finest hour can be a matter of opinion and perspective. For Partick Thistle fans, it is a matter of established fact.

Fifty years ago to the day, the Jags walked out onto Hampden Park and delivered one of the greatest upsets in the history of Scottish football by tearing Celtic apart in the League Cup final. So fancied were Jock Stein’s men – who had reached the final of the European Cup a matter of months previously – that the BBC’s coverage of the showpiece occasion began with the commentator declaring ‘It’s League Cup final day here at Hampden. Celtic face Partick Thistle, who have no chance’.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Thistle skipper Alex Rae got the ball rolling, so to speak, with a tremendous dipping volley from the edge of the box to hand the Jags an unlikely lead. Bobby Lawrie was next to get in on the act, shimmying his way into the Celtic box before curling the ball into the net for 2-0. Denis McQuade bundled in a third from the corner shortly before the half-hour mark before Jimmy Bone took advantage of a static Celtic defence to prod in a free-kick to leave the contingent from Maryhill pinching themselves as the half-time whistle rang out. Kenny Dalglish would pull a goal back with 20 minutes to go but the damage was already done.

It would be simple to prescribe the victory to dumb luck but those members of the class of ’71 see it very differently. This was no flash in the pan, no random sequence of events that just happened to fall Thistle’s way. It was manager Davie McParland’s philosophy reaching its natural conclusion and while it didn’t always work, his adventurous approach to every game was rewarded in full that day half a century ago.

“The season before we had been relegated and a lot of things changed,” recalls Bone. “There was an influx of younger players and the fact that we found our feet and started to win games – that was a big, big factor when we came up.

“We went out to win games and we never sat back. Sometimes, on a bad day, we would get hammered because we just went for it. But to be fair, it worked more than it didn’t!

“We were confident because Davie had done a right good job in training. He was confident that our forward players could cause a lot of problems and he said we would handle them at the back. They had very, very few chances.”

Glasgow Times:

Jackie Campbell, who started at centre-back that day, concurs.

“All we’d heard all week was that there was no point in us even turning up: Celtic were had won so many League Cups and the papers were saying this was going to be their easiest one,” he said. “So we got that feeling that you just accept it. The game is 11 v 11 – there’s nothing you can do about the hype around it. If you put your 11 out and do your bit, you might not always win but you shouldn’t get beat.

“You could see that they didn’t know what was happening. It’s an attitude: if you go into a game and you think you’re going to win it, it’s very difficult to come back. It’s not what you can do with the ball: it’s your attitude. Once we were 2-0 up we were flying – that ball became a little bit easier to get to. Football is simple.

“Once it went to 4-1, at that time you’re thinking ‘here we go, we’re in for a right hard 20 minutes’. But we got through that. I thought they lost heart a little bit.”

There might be those that would scoff at the idea of any team chucking a four-goal lead in a national cup final but Alan Rough, Thistle’s goalkeeper that day, admits to feeling a shiver of fear run down his spine as Dalglish reduced the arrears in the second half.

Rough was only 17 years old and was facing the Glasgow giants for one of the first times in his career but he insists that the gravity of the situation never daunted him. And after a first half where he might as well have been in the stands cheering the team on, it’s hard to blame him.

“I had absolutely nothing to do in the first half,” he said. “Even in the second, I only had two or three saves to make but obviously the panic set in when they scored with 20 minutes to go.

“I always carried a watch with me in my hat so I could look and see how long there was to go. There was a photographer called Martin Wright, a Thistle supporter, and he was behind the goal taking photos. When they scored he went ‘there’s 20 minutes to go’ and I said ‘no, it’s 22!’.

Glasgow Times:

“But even then there wasn’t an onslaught – they didn’t get through us. The second 45 minutes wasn’t backs-to-the-wall by any means.

“I don’t remember Davie ever saying ‘right, we’re going to sit in and hit them on the break’. What sums it up for me is that in the final we played 4-2-4: we only had two midfielders! It was unheard of. It was essentially four strikers!”

McQuade agrees with Rough’s assessment of Celtic’s ability to mount a comeback. “It crossed everybody’s mind. Celtic were very capable of scoring five goals in a half,” he reasoned.

“McParland insisted that the key was to keep them quiet for the first 15 minutes [in the second half] and we did. They didn’t get any momentum. Dalglish scored but they ran out of time. I do think they were a bit complacent on the day and they were surprised that we went for the jugular.”

That gung-ho approach would reap incredible rewards that day at the national stadium. But while McParland always placed a heavy emphasis on breaking forward and attacking their opponents, Campbell admits that a few of the Thistle players were well-versed in the dark arts and weren’t afraid to knock lumps out of their opponents.

He said: “I can remember getting belted – I was knocked out just before half-time. I was up myself and I knew I was getting it, but Bobby Murdoch stuck out an elbow. I’m an out-and-out defender: my attitude was if in doubt, belt it away as far as possible.

“Our full-backs were great going forward so me and [fellow centre-back] Hughie Strachan were like the stabilisers at the back. A lot of the players that played in our time would get sent off in the warm-up now. I was taught ‘retaliate first, son!’.”

You could be forgiven for feeling a little confused about the semantics of that particular mantra but as Rough points out, it had a telling effect on the final result at Hampden as Jimmy Johnstone discovered to his peril.

“I think a turning point in that game was wee Jinky going off. It was an injury but I think it was five minutes before it was supposed to happen,” he joked.

McQuade points to another crucial factor that helped McParland’s side seal history: their inexperience. Spurred on by the feeling of invincibility that often accompanies youth, there was a general consensus among the first-team squad that they had nothing to fear going up against Stein’s superstars.

Glasgow Times:

“The stars aligned for us that day,” he admitted. “We were young and had no fear – if we were all a bit older we probably would have felt a bit daunted.

“Davie McParland orchestrated the whole thing: he told us we were going to go on the attack and see what happens. We rattled Celtic early and they never really recovered. They were a bit shell-shocked by our effusiveness and our speed. We got the early momentum and just kept building on it. Nine times out of ten Celtic would have thrashed us but not that day!

“We scored four goals or more in five games in the tournament before the final. That was the nature of our team – we didn’t mind losing two as long as we scored three.”

The victory would cement each and every one of the 12 players that played that day as bona fide Thistle legends. Bone’s career would take him to North America for a brief stint in Canada and even there he was blown away by what the win over Celtic meant to supporters.

“No matter where I’ve been in the world, there’s always been someone coming up and asking about it,” he recalled. “I played in Toronto – a guy came up and asked me to come to a Partick Thistle supporters’ function. My mum was staying with us at the time so we went along and it was like Sauchiehall Street – they were all Glaswegians! Dear almighty me, they made me feel like a king. It was sensational.”

McQuade agrees that it has taken time to get used to achievement but is adamant that lifting the cup at Hampden acted as the jumping-off point for twelve wonderful months the subsequent year.

“It was a big day but it’s only now 50 years later that you realise how rare these occurrences are,” he conceded. “At the time we just enjoyed the day but little did we know how much Thistle fans would be talking about it 50 years later.

“The following year we played Manchester United, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, Honved in Budapest twice … this was a team that had been relegated two years before. We played in Europe and we played all over the world. We went to the Far East, we played Olympiakos in Greece, we played the Bulgarian B national team in Kuala Lumpur.

“That was the prize. We talk about that one day but the following year was just electric. McParland wanted us to take it up another level and wanted to take advantage of the fact that all these teams wanted to play us because we had beaten Celtic. It was amazing what that year did for us in terms of the club’s profile.”

If the Thistle players were feeling on top of the world following the full-time whistle, they were brought back down to earth with a dramatic thud the following week. But as McQuade touches on, it’s part and parcel of the very essence of Partick Thistle: dizzying highs followed by morale-sapping lows.

“The following week we got beat 7-2 by Aberdeen! Two weeks after the final we played Celtic at Firhill and they beat us 5-1. But that’s Thistle for you, you know?”